Short short stories, that is. For nearly four years now, writer Bruce Holland Rogers has been offering an e-mail subscription to his short stories. For $5 a year, subscribers get 36 stories – 3 a month delivered by e-mail – that range in length from 500 to 1500 words. So far he’s got 600 subscribers from about 60 countries. Rogers describes his stories as “an unpredictable mix of literary fiction, science fiction, fairy tales, mysteries, and work that is hard to classify.” It’s a neat idea and a good example of how writers can use the Internet to go directly to their readers rather than through publishers and literary magazines.
The creative writing class is a beautiful thing. The longest journeys begin with a single step, and (I’m sure) just like countless colleges and writers’ centers throughout the world, the classes I attended at The Irish Writers’ Centre were safe, exciting places to put one figurative foot in front of the other. Though clearly my metaphors need a little work…
The established rules are pretty clear to anyone who’s attended school: do your assignments, listen to the other students, respect your teacher. But of course, society is also filled with unwritten rules, observed by most and flouted by others. Don’t sip your drink too loudly at the movies; don’t answer your phone during a gig; and, if you’re attending a writing class, don’t do any of the things described below.
1. “I didn’t know we could do that!”
Lesson number one begins with a writing exercise that I love. Students are asked to turn to their nearest classmate and ask three questions about their life, then take 10 minutes writing the opening paragraph of a story using some of these details. For example, if someone mentions that they travel a lot, tan easily, and like the ocean, you could (if you’re a genius) use it as the opening to a story like John Steinbeck’s The Pearl.
It’s a great warm up if there’s a big enough group, and a chance for people to express themselves to a new class in a safe way. That is until people show resentment for classmate’s use of imagination.
To illustrate: One student was told of a classmate’s insomnia, love for travelling, and fondness of Latin America. This gave birth to a Latin variation on The Hulk (or Jekyll and Hyde, if you’re feeling even more generous). It was a lively, pulpy little piece and the closing line “when he slept, he became Rodrigo, and Rodrigo was not a nice person to know” evoked gasps and a few knowing chuckles: This young man had taken some bare facts and built the foundations of a fun — if slightly derivative short story. There were backslaps all round, at first.
“I didn’t know you could do that!” one student spluttered, so outraged she could barely get the words out fast enough. “He…he used supernatural elements. That’s not allowed! Is it?”
What was the real issue? That he didn’t follow her imagined parameters of the assignment? Or that her story was a literal shopping list of what she’d just been told? She had broken the first unwritten rule of creative writing classes: Don’t get sore if someone else has a better idea.
2. “Oh, I haven’t read it.”
Early in one beginner’s class, we were assigned to bring in a book we wished we’d written. I resisted the urge to bring in something classy like Ulysses, or indeed Slash’s autobiography, and instead opted for High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. Another classmate brought in A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe. She praised it eloquently, saying how the fall of a tycoon was relevant, how Wolfe writes with the authority of a gifted investigative journalist, and how it echoes Wolfe’s idol, Charles Dickens. “What do you like most about it?” asked the teacher.
“Oh I haven’t read it,” she breezed, without a hint of embarrassment or contrition. She later went on to correct other people’s assertions and interpretation of Wolfe’s opus, utterly oblivious to the inconvenient fact that they had read it and she had not.
You would think it doesn’t need clarification, but apparently it does: When told to talk about a book you admire, it’s best to choose one you’ve already at least opened.
3. “I thought it was sentimental.”
Outside of medicine and pharmaceuticals, which profession do you imagine is most affected by the existence of incurable diseases? I imagine it’s creative writing teachers. In the first class I attended, the writing-about-terminal-illness cases were approaching 50 percent. Terminal illness is obviously a serious subject, but even the most powerful subject’s impact can be dulled with repetition, or when it’s used as a narrative short cut.
You’ll be surprised how callous you become when numerous consecutive students read aloud their story about the elderly neighbor (kindly or cranky), known only for one hobby (gardening or withholding children’s Frisbees) who succumbs to a disease that reveals their true colors (humor and/or courage). Making someone cry is as hard as making someone laugh, and, in both comedy and tragedy, it’s painful to endure a piece of fiction that tries and fails.
This brings us to a student we’ll call “Anna” and rule number 3: Appreciate it when classmates are being polite. Her short story was about a precocious and grating young child who didn’t like her aunt. The twist is (you’re way ahead of me) that it turns out the aunt is fighting a serious disease. It was a mawkish, deadly serious piece of work, and the 4the illness-themed piece in one class. After she read it aloud, everyone gave polite, vague, and very gentle criticisms. Many tongues seemed to be held and bitten.
Then it came time to read my debut opus, in which a boy realizes he’s getting too old for stunts on his BMX. It was a little rough around the edges, but not the bike-crash I thought it was before Anna piped up. “I thought it was sentimental,” she snipped, oblivious to the fact that she had just read out a piece that Nicholas Sparks would have deleted and re-drafted. “Yeah, it was mawkish,” she continued, louder this time, “I didn’t get it”.
“Hey listen, lady!” I didn’t say. “The only reason you’re taking such liberties is because you wrongly think your story is nuanced and insightful.”
“And if we weren’t so polite during this fragile and important learning phase, you’d know how leaden and syrupy your misery mope fest really was,” I didn’t continue.
“Thanks, Anna, that’s really helpful,” I actually said, meekly and sadly combing over my every word to look for manipulative or sentimental passages I could re-write.
Image Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes
I’ve never been shy about my love for long form journalism – my love for the New Yorker is based on it – so I was intrigued to hear about a pair of books that collect some recent stand-out examples of the work from two other venerable magazines: New York and Harper’s. The former is represented in New York Stories and the latter in Submersion Journalism Both were reviewed a few weeks back in the LA Times. I was particularly intrigued by Submersion Journalism which includes work by Wells Tower, an excellent but not terribly well-known journalist who contributes to Harper’s, The Believer, Washington Post Magazine and others. We wrote about him a while back in an “Ask a Book Question” post. Unfortunately, a bunch of comments from readers listing several of Tower’s pieces were lost in the Great Comments Purge of 2006, but the post nonetheless provides some background.Tower is best known for the remarkable Harper’s piece “Bird-Dogging the Bush Vote,” for which he, as the LA Times puts it “embeds himself with some Bush boosters in Florida during the 2004 campaign in order to know thine enemy.” The article is, unfortunately, not available online for free, but it is included in Submersion Journalism. I’ve read it, and I think it rates up there with Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail as a piece of tragicomic political journalism.Stepping back, it’s always exciting to see collections like these come out, if only for the fact that they highlight some of the best, most entertaining journalism ever written. I concur with reviewer Marc Weingarten in the LA Times who writes, “The Web is clearly where the media is headed. But long, well-informed literary journalism like the stories found in these books is still the province of print. If readers forsake this stuff, well, shame on all of us.”See Also: The New New Journalists
Mrs. Millions has decided that if I’m going to do all this blogging she should get something out of it, too. She reads a lot, and it seems that I’m always digging through our bookshelves looking for another book for her to read. Well, I’m running out of ideas, so she’s decided to bypass me and go straight to you guys. She has thoughtfully provided her recent reading preferences to help you select something to her liking. You’ll notice here, as well, the attention Mrs. Millions pays to the look and feel of the books she reads, so you may want to factor that in.Like Max, I look forward to vacation because it demands that vast amounts of time be spent reading. Unlike Max, I do not have a reading queue but instead rely upon recommendations (always Max’s) for what to read next, or I search for an appealing title and cover from the Millions library, letting chance encounters determine my next choice. But now, Max is kindly letting me use the blog to place a request for suggestions… I call it “What’s next for Mrs. Millions?”My most recent read is Small Island by Andrea Levy, which I am presently halfway through and am enjoying because it is fiction that weaves itself through history without being too tightly bound to it. Levy’s book also has an incredibly intentional feel to it and it is filled with vivid detail. The book is printed on paper that is like newsprint with rough edges – the tactility of a book impresses me as much as the content. Prior to this was Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. This was not among my favorites, primarily because the story was too neat with not enough depth, and it’s a hardcover with bookjacket (which I immediately removed, as I often do). But it had a tough act to follow: The World According to Garp by John Irving is messy and endearing, pressing all the wrong and right buttons. Ours is an older copy, used before we acquired it which seemed in step with the novel – I even kept this one’s jacket on. And before that was John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, my favorite among this group.With that brief history in mind, please send Max your suggestions sothat I will be kept from interrupting his reading time. ; ]So got any ideas? Help me out here folks. Leave your suggestions in the comments below.
Most folks have probably heard that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road on a 120 foot long continuous roll of paper, but now you can seen it. “Beginning this week at the Orange County History Center in Orlando, Fla., and ending with a three-month stay at the New York Public Library in 2007, Kerouac’s “On the Road” scroll will make a 13-stop, four-year national tour of museums and libraries.“One great byproduct of the new translation of Don Quixote is that it has given way to many reconsiderations of the classic. Now the Atlantic Monthly weighs in.Also from the Atlantic, a great piece explaining how they choose which books to review and why their reviews may sometimes come across as atypical. It’s a great read for anyone who is tired of the prevalence of cookie-cutter picks and pans.
Most of you have probably read it, or at least heard about it: Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker posits that the cultural inter-borrowing that long underpinned the vibrancy of American music has fallen by the wayside in the current era of mopey indie rock (I mostly agree). The essay is good – though-provoking – but what has really rounded it out has been his series of responses, on his blog, to the various letters he received – 1, 2, 3, 4 – which have turned his effort into the sort of bull session that regularly happens among music fans.In a similar vein, in this case in the world a film, One-Way Street posits that we have a problem we never expected: “an American cinema that’s too good.” The argument is fairly convincing. But I can’t help but think that some arguments to the contrary might turn the post into a bull session as intriguing as the one Frere-Jones has curated at the New Yorker.
The concept of self-improvement through reading has always struck me as hopelessly vexed. I was surprised and delighted, then, to discover in Megan Hustad’s How to Be Useful an erudite, pragmatic, funny, and endearingly humble “Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work.” It was the kind of book I wish someone had given me when I was fresh out of college.Back then, in the giddy afterglow of the Clinton years, my enormous sense of entitlement hid behind a contorted ideological posture. Sure, I would benefit financially from global capitalism, but I would maintain my purity by doing a really mediocre job. (Take that, Milton Friedman!) What’s refreshing about How to Be Useful is that it presents an ethical, rather than a moral, argument for working hard. Hustad doesn’t attempt to say that you should work for The Man; rather, she argues that if you have to, you might as well do it well.Surprisingly, the secret to success, according to Hustad’s meta-analysis of a century of business advice, is making yourself indiscriminately useful to those around you. At some point, she argues, people will want to return the favor. And in the meantime, while you may not have addressed global economic inequality, you will have made the world around you a little more pleasant for your coworkers and for yourself.This week, we’ve invited Ms. Hustad to give us some “Usefulness Training” based on our own first-job hijinks. Every day, one of our contributors will post an anecdote about his or her misguided work ethic. Hustad will rate us on a scale of 1 to 5, with one being Mildly Useless, and 5 being Irremediably Useless. She’ll also try to tease out the misguided assumptions we held upon entering the workforce, and to explain how we might have conducted ourselves more helpfully. These links will become active as the posts are published:Welcome to the Working Week 1: MaxWelcome to the Working Week 2: EmreWelcome to the Working Week 3: GarthWelcome to the Working Week 4: AndrewFinally, we invite our readers to contribute their own first-job stories (ideally 100 words or less) in the comments box. At the end of the week, perhaps we’ll ask Ms. Hustad to respond to one of them.